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“Big Potential” by Shawn Achor – Book Review

We live in a society that stresses individualism. We’re taught from a young age we need to be the best, and we grow up believing if we have the best test scores, the highest sales numbers, or the most impressive résumé, then we’ll succeed and reach our full potential.

But what if everything we’ve ever thought about success and human potential is wrong? What could we achieve in our careers and our lives if we shifted this mindset just a bit to include others?

Best-selling author and researcher Shawn Achor of “The Happiness Advantage” fame believes there is a better way, and he has the research to prove it. Achor has written a new book, 10 years in the making, about how the power of working together can transform our potential for success and happiness.

In “Big Potential,” Achor draws on his work with dozens of Fortune 100 companies and prestigious organizations like NASA and the White House and research spanning 50 countries to lay out a plan for a more collectivist approach to success. When we work together, he argues, we can achieve far more than we ever could alone. Even better, the road to our collective success is happier and more fulfilling than going solo.

What does this mean for you? When you lift up the people around you, your opportunities and potential for success grow exponentially. This is true whether you’re in a top leadership position or just starting out in the workforce. Teams will always achieve more than the individual.

So keep reading if you’d like to learn why your friends can help predict your success in life, why your IQ has nothing to do with success, and what you can do to transform the way you work and reach your full potential at work and in life.


What Lightning Bugs Can Teach Us About Working Together

In the still darkness of a summer night, you see lightning bugs flashing sporadically among the trees and flowers. Lightning bugs flash for one reason: to attract a mate. And in most parts of the world, they do this on their own … a flash here, a flash there, all over your yard.

However, in a few select pockets around the globe, lightning bugs do things differently. Instead of flashing individually, some populations of lightning bugs have learned the power of synchronous flashing: flashing at exactly the same time.

Can you picture millions of lightning bugs lighting up at exactly the same moment? And not only once or twice, but again and again throughout an entire evening, night after night, all through the summer?

These lightning bugs have the same goal as the others; they’re trying to attract a mate. And most of us would assume synchronous lighting would reduce, not improve, their chances of attracting a female. But we’d be wrong.

According to Achor’s book, after studying these unique populations of lightning bugs, scientists discovered a stunning fact: Synchronous lightning bugs improve their success rate of attracting a mate by 79% when they work together.

Scientists also discovered another amazing benefit: The flashing from these synchronous lightning bugs is visible for miles, which means it’s even easier for other lightning bugs to make their way toward the light. More males – and more females – join the group, and everyone benefits.


Why Competition Doesn’t Work

Today, we have an endless number of ways to broadcast our achievements. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites make it easy for us to toot our own horns. But these sites often fuel our insecurity because we’re constantly bombarded by the achievements of others. This can force us, even subconsciously, to work ever harder to look better and achieve more at higher levels.

This individualist approach requires a great deal of competition. After all, there’s only one “top spot.” It’s a limited resource, and if you don’t compete fiercely for that spot, then you’re not going to get it. This competition, in turn, forces us to push others away, increasing our feelings of isolation, loneliness, and disconnectedness.

Our increasing rates of depression back this up. According to research conducted by Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, depression increased significantly from 2005 to 2015, especially among young people aged 12 to 17. For this group, rates of depression went from 8.7% to 12.7%. Additionally, depression rates in adults have doubled in the last decade, as have hospitalizations for children attempting suicide.

While a number of things contribute to our rising rates of depression, Achor believes a big factor is the emphasis on individual achievement along with rising pressure in schools and companies to pursue success at all costs. This hyper-competitiveness hurts our potential, productivity, and creativity.

However, the good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. Achor believes when we work to help other people succeed, we dramatically improve our own potential for success. When we make others better, it creates more resources, more energy, and more experiences that, in turn, make us better and fuel our success.

Achor cites research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Scientists found that if you are looking at a hill and judging how steep it is, the presence of social support dramatically alters your perception. If you’re looking at a hill next to someone you see as a friend, the hill looks 10% to 20% less steep than if you were facing it alone.

This means your perception of the world changes depending on how much support you feel from the people around you. Alone, that mountain looks higher. But with a group? You can climb anything.

You could easily put this simple concept into practice at work by lending a helping hand to colleagues whenever you can. Supporting the people around you will give them a confidence and morale boost. You’ll also find they’ll be the ones supporting you when you need it most later on.

Why Success & Happiness Depend on Friends

In the book, Achor shares another story that illustrates why competition doesn’t work, and this one is from his own research at Harvard University. During his time there, Achor designed and ran one of the largest studies of human potential ever conducted at the university. His goal was to look at individual attributes to predict who would be happiest and most successful at the prestigious school.

Achor had access to an incredible amount of personal data, including test scores, family income, nightly sleep patterns, and social network accounts. But none of the data could pinpoint a student’s success. The students with the highest SAT scores could be getting C grades, and those with the most “friends” on Facebook could be the most depressed.

Achor found himself getting nowhere until he stumbled on the answer: social connections. That is, real-life social connections. He discovered social connection was the strongest predictor of emotional well-being and optimism, the strongest antidote to depression, and the best predictor of how much stress a student felt during exams and academic competition.

Additionally, the study found that social connection is one of the greatest predictors of long-term performance in the workforce.

Achor went on to work with some of the brightest business leaders and biggest companies in the world, including Google. And through the years, his initial findings at Harvard played out on a much larger scale. When it comes to potential, individual traits and strengths are poor predictors of success. Your college degree, IQ, and unique skill set really can’t predict how successful you’ll be in your life.

The people around you, however, do predict your success. Achor’s research proves that when you help the people around you become better, you raise the performance of everyone in the group, including yourself.

How Happiness Affects Others

By now, you likely realize that if social connections have such an important influence on your career success, they probably have a huge influence on your personal happiness. And you’d be right.

What you probably don’t realize is how much your happiness will affect your friends. In 2008, researchers James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School found that when you become happier, any friend within a 1-mile radius is 63% more likely to become happier. On the flip side, if you’re depressed and you surround yourself with happy people, your likelihood of finding happiness increases dramatically.

We feed off each others’ happiness in ways scientists are only beginning to understand. And we affect each others’ potential as well. When you surround yourself with high-potential people, it dramatically increases your likelihood of high-potential outcomes.

Achor cites study after study that all point to the same conclusion: We constantly shape the people around us, and we’re constantly being shaped in return. Our tendencies to forgive, to be generous, to be creative and motivated, and to learn are all influenced by the people we surround ourselves with.

The research in the book is fascinating, and there’s a lot of it. But there has to be. The concept of “survival of the fittest” is so ingrained Achor has to spend the first few chapters showing why it’s so shortsighted and wrong. But his persistence pays off. By the time you’ve read the first few chapters, you’ll be convinced that what you can achieve on your own is far less than what you can achieve with the help and support of others.


How to Tap Into Your Own Big Potential

The workforce is constantly changing. The work we do on a typical day is, for the most part, dramatically different from the work we did just three decades ago.

What’s becoming more important is our ability to work effectively with a group. A Google study covered by The New York Times found that the average employee spends 75% of the day communicating with coworkers. And this is likely to increase in the years to come, which means that if you can’t or won’t work well with others, you’ll get left behind.

So let’s look at some strategies you can use to work and communicate more effectively with others.

The Virtuous Cycle

The better you are at working with others, at raising the performance and morale of your team, the more you’ll thrive in the workforce today and in the years to come.  Achor calls this concept the “Virtuous Cycle.” Unlike a “vicious cycle,” Achor’s Virtuous Cycle increases the positive, making future successes even easier.

What does this mean? Achor provides a few examples to show what the Virtuous Cycle looks like.

  • A sales leader shares the praise for her sales success with one of her support team members, which makes that member feel more invested. This leads to greater sales success for the leader and, in turn, more success and praise.
  • An overworked manager trusts his assistant enough to delegate an important task. This makes the assistant feel trusted, so he works hard and does an excellent job, which earns him even more trust from his overworked manager.

The sales leader and overworked manager both did the same thing: They shared their resources – in this case, praise and projects – with someone else, which compounded the resources they started with.

Stop and think about how you could apply the concept of the Virtuous Cycle with one of your colleagues. What could you do to share with them or to invest in them so you both emerge better?

It might be hard to think of actionable steps off the top of your head. Fortunately, Achor provides five concrete strategies to help you start using the Virtuous Cycle. He calls these strategies SEEDS, which stands for:

  • Surround: how to surround yourself with positive influencers
  • Expand: how to expand your success by helping and empowering others
  • Enhance: how to enhance the potential of others and further enhance your own
  • Defend: how to protect your potential and that of others from negative influences
  • Sustain: how to sustain your potential and create collective long-term momentum

The first two strategies are easy to put into practice at work right now.

Surround

When you surround yourself with others who are interested and willing to lift you up, you all achieve more. This interconnectedness also helps make all of you more resilient: A setback or negative event has less power when you have the support of other people.

Companies are beginning to understand the power of this interconnectedness, and they’re reversing the trend of telecommuting as a result. Even giants like IBM and Google are reducing telecommuting options because they now see people work faster, are more creative, and are more collaborative when they’re part of a face-to-face team.

So how do you go about surrounding yourself with the right people?

Look Out for Positive Peer Pressure

To start, it’s important to understand the concept of positive peer pressure. Most of us already understand its opposite, negative peer pressure. It can come from a colleague pressuring us to go out to lunch even when they know we can’t afford it or another colleague who pressures you to take on more work than you can handle.

Positive peer pressure inspires you to do better. For example, one of your team members exercises every day, which inspires and motivates you to do the same. Another colleague doesn’t think twice about helping out someone in need; this motivates you to follow her lead.

Positive peer pressure can bring out the best in you. This means you need to look out for people with a positive mindset and do whatever you can to get to know and work with them. Surrounding yourself with positive people will make you more positive too.

Read Positive Books

If you don’t yet know anyone who’s positive, then surround yourself with positive media. Research shows you are what you read. That is, when you become deeply engrossed in a book, you can actually take on some of the characteristics of the main character. Reading a book with a main character who is generous can make you more generous; a main character who invests in her creativity can make you more creative.

The same goes for television. Do you feel great about yourself after watching a negative TV program? Probably not. Instead of watching shows that focus on the negative, watch something that will make you feel positive or inspired.

Focus on Diversity

The more diverse your team or group of friends is, the stronger you’ll be and the more you’ll all achieve. And by diversity, Achor doesn’t just mean ethnic diversity. He means diversity on multiple levels, like experience, education, gender, race, age, background, and abilities. So add hierarchical diversity to your teams or get to know someone who’s much lower in the pecking order than you are.

Yes, diversity often produces friction. However, this friction is a perfect breeding ground for problem-solving, creativity, and new ideas.

To put this into action, make a point to strike up a conversation with someone new this week, especially if that someone is a person you don’t normally talk to. Have lunch with the janitor at work or your elderly neighbor, make a lunch date with another parent at your child’s preschool, or spend time with someone who frequently pushes you outside your comfort zone. You have something to learn from everyone if you’ll just create the opportunity.


Expand

Another strategy Achor covers in “Big Potential” focuses on expanding what you can achieve by empowering others to lead no matter where they are or what they do.

Achor illustrates this concept with a powerful story about the Cardinal Community School District in Iowa. The district was one of the worst in the nation, yet a new superintendent, Joel Pedersen, believed he could transform it. Using concepts and strategies from Achor’s first book, “The Happiness Advantage,” Pedersen set out to completely change the culture and mindset of the school.

One of the approaches Pedersen adopted was the “leadership at any level” concept. He wanted everyone, from the janitors and cafeteria staff to the teachers and substitutes, to realize and believe they had the power to change the lives of each and every student in the school.

While Pederesen used a lot of positive approaches to transform the school, the power of leadership at any level might have been the most profound. People at every level began to feel empowered to create positive change; it didn’t matter if they had an advanced degree or a high school diploma. He put everyone in charge of creative positive change.

For example, the bus drivers wrote encouraging notes for the kids on their route, and the lunch staff served up random acts of kindness along with meatloaf and green beans. Small ripples of change, to be sure, but they had surprisingly huge impacts. These little ripples expanded into positive changes in all areas of students’ lives. And this began to inspire the students to create positive change for each other.

Over just a few years, Cardinal went from a so-called “failure factory” to having a graduation rate of 92%, and average ACT scores that went from 17 to 21. Enrollment went up, funding increased, and schools around the country began to adopt Pedersen’s approach.

If you empower others around you to lead, you’ll be astonished at what you can achieve together. So how do you do this?

Lead Where You Are

Achor calls one strategy “lead from the eleventh chair.” The “eleventh chair” analogy comes from an inspiring story from Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. In his story, Zander tells of a cellist who was discouraged she was eleventh chair in the cello section – essentially, the bottom rung in the orchestra. Instead of feeling proud she was part of one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, all she could think about were the 10 people ahead of her in the section.

Zander could tell she was disengaged, so he asked her advice on a challenging new piece of music they were practicing. He followed her advice, and the next week, they performed the piece as she suggested – to rave reviews. After that, the eleventh chair cellist played like a completely different person.

Put simply, the eleventh chair strategy means no matter where you are or what level you’re on, you have the ability and potential to lead.

What could you do right now to help your team or improve your organization? What suggestions could you offer your boss to help them work more effectively or with less stress?

Inspire Others to Lead

As you might guess at this point, it’s not enough to lead on your own. The crucial part of expanding positive change is inspiring others to lead regardless of where they are.

To do this, you’ll need to pitch your concept or idea in just the right way. After all, most people are hesitant to change and won’t willingly go along with what you’re saying unless you make it meaningful for them.

In the book, Achor uses this example: If your teenager is procrastinating on filling out her college applications, preaching to her about the importance of meeting deadlines won’t change her behavior. If, however, you tell your socially conscious teen about the various clubs and groups available at each school, she’ll likely be much more motivated to get her applications filled out.

Think about how you might apply this in your current role. For example, if you’re in charge of an underperforming team, spend some time thinking about what they really care about or ask questions to find out what truly motivates them. Then, help them see that taking ownership of their work can help satisfy these deep desires or motivations.

These are only two of the tips and strategies found in “Big Potential.” There are still three more concepts covered in the book: Enhance, Defend, and Sustain. You’ll have to get the book to learn why you need to praise others often and generously, how to defend your and your team’s potential against negative influences, and how to sustain your forward motion and keep it going long-term for those around you. The last chapter, in particular, is very inspiring, and you won’t want to miss the stories Achor shares there.


Final Word

I loved Achor’s book for several reasons.

The first has to do with its application. No matter what you do in life, whether you’re a busy stay-at-home parent or work outside the home in a fast-paced leadership role, you will find tips and inspiration to make your life more productive and meaningful simply by reaching out and connecting more with others. Achor proves time and time again you truly are more than the sum of your parts, and the connections you make and foster predict your success more than your degree or IQ.

At heart, the strategies you’ll learn in the book focus on how to make others better and, at the same time, make yourself better. And the implications are profound. As Achor says so eloquently in the book, there is simply no meaning in life without others. The book is deeply inspiring, and you can’t read it without realizing you can’t and won’t get anywhere alone.

Have you read “Big Potential“? What did you find most useful or inspiring?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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